Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, II

July 28, 2022

The Claw of the Conciliator
The Book of the New Sun, Book II
Gene Wolfe
(Orb, 1994) [1982]
200 p.

The story of Severian, the obscure apprentice in the torturer’s guild who is destined for great things, continues in this second volume. Whereas the first volume had taken place almost entirely in the great, sprawling city of Nessus, this volume follows Severian as he journeys north toward the mountains, where he is to take up a position as town executioner.

In many respects, this stage of the story continues the strengths that I appreciated in the first: the story, though personal, takes place on a truly epic stage that is only gradually revealed. In the last volume it was primarily the sense of deep time, of ages and ages of past history, that impressed me. In this volume the world of the present expands: we become aware that the civilization in which Severian lives is not monolithic — the Autarch might sound like an absolute ruler, but his territories have borders, and a great war against another, still mysterious power rages in the mountains toward which Severian is traveling. It also becomes evident that the world in which Severian lives, despite its rustic, quasi-medieval feel, possesses certain kinds of technologies that are far in advance of anything we possess today, and that the past, and perhaps the present, history of his world includes interstellar travel and contact with alien worlds. So it is a science fiction book after all. Moreover, the hints in the first volume that his world is populated by different kinds of animals than our world, and that humanoid, but non-human, species also exist receives confirmation and elaboration in this volume, though it remains unclear how this has come about. As before, these aspects of the world are revealed mostly through oblique and incidental references.

Some of my concerns about the previous volume were allayed in this segment of the tale. The episodic and halting introduction of characters was justified to some extent in this volume when those same characters came back and assumed a larger role. My sense that there is a controlling hand at the tiller has strengthened in consequence, and that has been reassuring.

This sense of trust is necessary, because some of what happens in this book is peculiar, to put it mildly. I’m not an habitual reader of fantasy or sci-fi, so perhaps I’m more sensitive than most to these oddities, but this is a book in which a green, half-plant man from the future appears as a passing detail, in which we meet a group of glowing ape-men who live underground, in which a gigantic, bloated mermaid appears in a forest brook, and so forth. My appetite for such things is not ravenous, and the formalist in me hopes that they have been introduced for a reason that will pay off later. We will see.

The title of the book refers to a gem that came into Severian’s possession late in the first volume, and which he carries with him throughout this one, attempting to return it to the religious order from which he acquired it. Who the “Conciliator” may be is not clear, and why this jewel should be his “claw” is as yet obscure. We are told that “everyone who has ever lived has died, even the Conciliator”, but that he will one day “rise as the New Sun”. This same New Sun might, perhaps, have something to do with the solar body — there are hints that some kind of physical transformation is in the offing — but is also a person, who will, for instance, open paradise to those who “in their final moments, call upon him”. In another place we learn that the Conciliator has a way of reappearing even after he has been thought dead. He seems to be some sort of Christ figure — if not actually Christ, which is a possibility that I think remains open — who stands close to the center of the religious cosmology of the book, though, oddly, nobody seems to have definite ideas about him.

In any case, the Claw plays a role in the book somewhat analogous to the role of the One Ring in Middle Earth — closer, so far, to its role in The Hobbit than in The Lord of the Rings. I mean that it has a certain gee-whiz quality — the Claw has the power to heal and glows according to a situational logic all its own — but how it fits into the larger scheme of things is still opaque.

I finish this second volume in somewhat brighter spirits than I did the first, having firmer ground to expect a coherent tale out of all this, and intrigued by the many mysterious avenues Wolfe has opened up for exploration. The third volume, The Sword of the Lictor, awaits.

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